Regeneration guru John Lewis believes his blueprint for young, hi-tech companies could retain UK expertise and help revitalise the manufacturing sector.
His pilot scheme in Runcorn has proved a resounding success, and he is now replicating the model in London, which has attracted interest from the Government. He was recently invited to No 10 Downing Street for talks with Ministers, academics and scientists on his plans.
Mr Lewis created The Heath Business and Technical Park in 2000 when then owner, chemicals giant ICI, announced the closure of its laboratories and offices there. The expectation was the land would be levelled and used to build homes or warehouses.
But Mr Lewis joined the site’s management team to form private company SOG and develop the site into a science park that utilised the existing facilities but, perhaps more importantly, retained the skills of the existing workforce.
Today, the Heath is home to a range of specialist tenants, including some of the world’s leading scientific organisations in sectors such as research and development (R&D), life sciences, nano-technology, automotive, high value manufacturing, and energy sectors employing around 1,700 staff – much more than when ICI was the sole tenant.
Now, he is in the process of repeating the exercise in Dagenham after SOG bought land in East London that was previously home to pharmaceuticals firm Sanofi that had announced plans to pull out of the area.
Again, he wants to exploit the existing facilities, and expertise of the workforce, to build a hi-tech science and business park on what he has renamed Londoneast-uk that would promote skills and businesses to maintain the UK’s cutting edge in these fields.
His visit to No 10 was to encourage the Government and industry to use his model as the next stage of growth for hi-tech start-ups in university incubators.
Mr Lewis said: “It is all about accelerating bringing products to market quicker. If you look at university incubators they are all full, and funded by Government and Europe, but there’s no post-incubator grow-in space. There isn’t a connection to intellectual property (IP), and so it is easy for investors to pick these companies up and move them.”
He said we need what he calls “sticky jobs” so there is more IP which makes it difficult for overseas investors to relocate fledgling UK firms abroad.
He explained: “It is now generally recognised that due to the closure of so many R&D and pharmaceutical sites across the UK over recent years, a joined-up approach is required to save those we can and, where possible, retain the skill base that is normally lost – not just the highly-qualified scientists but also the highly-skilled vocational workforce that give them vital support.
“These skills are not found in the Yellow Pages.”
He added: “These facilities can offer the much-needed grow-in space to the overcrowded academic incubation centres which, in turn, will accelerate R&D developments and speed up the slow-burning process of getting products to market. Currently I consider there is a disconnection here and by making Government more informed will help them engage more effectively.”
Mr Lewis said: “A positive result here will retain IP in the UK and consequently attract inward investment.
“Saving these facilities and saving such skills in the UK, preventing our expertise, IP and products from moving abroad, will assist the UK in increasing manufacturing once again. Sounds simple, and it can be, but only with a joined-up approach.”
Mr Lewis went on: “This country is ahead of the game in innovation and we have to stay ahead as a world leader and get products to market faster than anyone else.
“It is all about keeping the innovation here. It brings development, growth and tomorrow’s manufacturing. The Heath and London are the first models of its kind because it is not dependent on funding. It is a basic model and just happens to be in technical services.
“When science parks close down they do it in isolation. But working with people like councils you can work together before the closure date. The thinking tends to be that if it is a pharmaceutial site it has to be a pharmacuetical site. No. The Heath has more than 100 businesses in 20 business sectors working on what was a research and chemical development site. I am not interested in laboratories, just the infrastructure.
By using these existing facilities it is an effective solution to the Government who don’t have to invest millions of pounds in new science parks. It also means that people involved are not lost and don’t become taxi drivers or go to work in B&Q.
“It took me more than 15 years to get this model and have the confidence to do it elsewhere.”
Mr Lewis has signed the first tenant for Londoneast-uk and expects to have at least 10 companies operating there in 12 months.